Passover: Seder memories past and present

We hope to continue our tradition of celebrating Passover in new settings, creating new memories, but very mindful of reciting the phrase L’Shana Haba’ah B’Yerushalayim – Next year in Jerusalem.

 ‘The First Seder in Jerusalem (1949-50)’ by artist Reuven Rubin. (photo credit: RUBIN MUSEUM)
‘The First Seder in Jerusalem (1949-50)’ by artist Reuven Rubin.
(photo credit: RUBIN MUSEUM)

Most of us Jews have fond memories of celebrating Passover in our childhood. As the years advance, these memories somehow do not fade. In my case, they get even stronger. Perhaps it is the mind’s way of helping those of us who are living the Gil Hazahav, or the golden age, as the Israelis euphemistically refer to retirement. My memories of celebrating Passover go back to my childhood, which I spent in South Africa where I was born.   We were not observant; nevertheless, Passover stood out in the annual calendar. My mother would tidy up the house and kitchen with the help of the domestic staff. She would get rid of all bread and most other non-Passover food. The festival usually fell in April, which is the beginning of autumn in the southern hemisphere when days draw in and the nights get colder. 

For many years, we celebrated the holiday with our neighbors the Isaacsons. “Uncle” Benny was my sandak, the Jewish equivalent of a godfather, who participated at my brit mila (circumcision). For years, we would drive over to their house on Galway Rd., Parkview, and become part of their family. Uncle Benny would lead the Seder wearing a traditional black Pandit Nehru-looking yarmulke. Over the years, we got to know the Isaacson family tunes, and they became our own. Having been sent to cheder, where I was taught modern Israeli Hebrew, I found Uncle Benny’s and my dad’s Ashkenazi pronunciations of Hebrew quite jarring. It sounded archaic, harking back to the days of my grandparents, who were immigrants from Lithuania. Jewish tradition, as I discovered many years later, teaches that the Passover Seder is very much geared toward children.

“You shall tell your children,” the Haggadah entreats us. Sadly, this was not understood by the adults who led the Seders when I was a child. For the most part, the Seders were boring, and it seemed that the pace and speed with which my father and others read the Haggadah were designed to get through the readings and on to the meal as soon as possible. In South Africa, the hostess at the Seder would invariably be assisted by staff who had to wait around until the Seder was over so that they could help with the washing up and tidying up of the kitchen. 

The filling of the cup of Elijah is a strange ritual that always intrigued me. We kids had to open the front door to welcome the spirit of the biblical prophet into the house. Our eyes were glued to the cup in the center of the table to see if Elijah really did drink the wine that was poured out for him. Even in those days, Johannesburg was not the safest city at night, and I remember the feeling of concern and uneasiness as we stood at the open door listening for sounds and waiting for Uncle Benny to shout out when we could close the door again.

On many occasions, we “Sedered” with my maternal grandparents in the provincial town of Volksrust, 150 miles from Johannesburg. My grandparents were even less observant than we were. My grandpa Sam had little patience for the Seder and left my father to run things. My grandma Golda, who’d been raised in a very religious home, kept all the culinary traditions of Pesach to the letter. Her Litvishe (Lithuanian Jewish) recipes were meticulously prepared, from the traditional boiled eggs, charoset (almonds, cloves, sweet wine and apples) and chrein (horseradish) to the chicken soup with kneidlach (matzah balls) and main course, followed by stewed apples and plums. Granny, too, had no patience for the reading of the Haggadah.

 A traditional Seder table setting. (credit: WIKIPEDIA) A traditional Seder table setting. (credit: WIKIPEDIA)

“The children won’t understand this, Joe,” she called out to my father in Yiddish. “Let’s rather put on the record,” she signaled to me with a wink. And so, without waiting for permission, I opened the sliding doors to the lounge and put on the 78 record that my dad had bought for them.

“When Israel was in Egypt land,” the American male singer crooned, followed by the chorus of “Let my people go.” The narrator then went on to tell the tale of the Exodus, accompanied by plaintive tunes that were derived from Negro spirituals. Everyone except my father loved it, and he was forced to concede that the idea of listening to the record was much more entertaining and appealing to all of us than droning on in incomprehensible Ashkenazi Hebrew. 

Many years later, after I had become an observant Orthodox Jew, I remember my first Seder in Jerusalem. The atmosphere in the city was enchanting, with thousands of people coming to Jerusalem to celebrate. I recall the moment when the Seder ended, and we all stood facing the window that overlooked the city singing “L’Shana Haba’ah B’Yerushalayim” (Next Year in Jerusalem). 

Diversifying the Passover Seder experience

After that, I moved to London and was introduced to the Seder customs of many different hospitable Jewish families. For a start, the tunes were different and so was the food. One common denominator was the length of the Seder and the time I got to bed. In Western Europe, Passover is almost always celebrated after the clocks change and summertime is heralded in. As a result, the Seder cannot begin until nightfall. This meant that after the Haggadah was read, discussed, questioned and interpreted by those sitting around the table, we only began eating the meal at around 10 p.m. By the time we had finished the second half of the Seder, it was well past midnight, and I remember falling into bed at two o’clock in the morning. 

My Passover experiences continued to be more diverse after I got married to my American wife, who hailed from Brooklyn, New York. We would often spend Passover with her family in Flatbush or New Jersey. My late father-in-law was a very learned man. All his sons attended yeshivot; the youngest, Abie, was the most strictly religious of the three. I remember the heated discussions that took place about the portion size of maror (bitter herbs) that was meant to be ingested. It always ended up with Abie munching an unbelievable quantity of grated white raw horseradish that would make him splutter and cough as his face turned redder and his eyes ran. Once again, I had to learn and appreciate new tunes and traditions, this time rendered by the Zlotnick family.

For most of our marriage, my wife and I celebrated Passover in Israel. We invested in a small pied-à-terre in Rehavia and would come to Israel as often as we could until we made aliyah in 2014. We would also treat ourselves to celebrating the festival at a hotel, where it was warmer. In those days we were living in London and desperately needed to get away from the unending winter and grayness. Most often we’d find a holiday package deal on the coast in Tel Aviv or Herzliya. We also liked to go to the Dead Sea. 

There was one Passover that I shall never forget which we celebrated at the then Hyatt Hotel. It was in the middle of the Second Intifada, and there were not many tourists in the country. That evening, after the Seder, we were walking back to the reception area, when we noticed a small crowd of guests talking to the manager. It was March 27, 2002, when a suicide bombing was carried out by Hamas at the Park Hotel in Netanya during the Seder

Thirty civilians were killed in the attack, and 140 were wounded. It was the deadliest attack against Israelis during that Second Intifada. Everyone was in a state of shock and despair. Nevertheless, life carried on as it always does in this country.

 The wrecked dining hall at the Park Hotel in Netanya after the suicide bombing on March 27, 2002, in which 30 people were killed and dozens wounded. (credit: NOAM SHARON/GPO) The wrecked dining hall at the Park Hotel in Netanya after the suicide bombing on March 27, 2002, in which 30 people were killed and dozens wounded. (credit: NOAM SHARON/GPO)

For many years, we were graciously hosted by our good friends from London who also had an apartment in Jerusalem. Once again, we became an established part of a family Seder. Theirs  included the riotous rendition of the song “Had Gadya” by their children and grandchildren, with all the creative accoutrements and animal sounds, to which we contributed. 

More recently, celebrating Passover around the world became very bizarre with the advent of the pandemic. Many of us still remember how just three years ago, we were in lockdown. The synagogues were closed, and we were confined to our apartments. How well I recall Seder night when all over Jerusalem hundreds of families went out on their balconies to recite the “Ma Nishtana?” For us older folk, this lasted until last year. In 2022 we were still worried about getting corona. The only good thing about that period was that for the first time, my wife and I made our own Seder in our own home. With only one other couple who were afraid to be with their children and grandchildren, we recited the Haggadah together and took turns in sharing our tunes and favorite commentaries about the Haggadah. For two years running, the Seders finished early and we were in bed by 10:30 p.m.

This year, things have returned to a state of relative normality. In May 2022, we moved to a retirement village outside Jerusalem, where we can see the city from our balcony. Despite settling here, we hope to continue our tradition of celebrating Passover in new settings, creating new memories, but very mindful of reciting the phrase L’Shana Haba’ah B’Yerushalayim – Next year in Jerusalem. ■

The writer and his wife live in Protea Hills near Jerusalem.